Weekly Dissident: Menzi Maseko writes on black consciousness and jazz

MENZI MASEKO is a sociopolitical activist and cultural worker who upholds black consciousness and radical humanist principles mostly using the weapon of the arts and creative education. He is also very active in the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the September National Imbizo (SNI). He is a librarian at Bat Centre’s Resource Centre and a member of the Slam Poetry Operation Team (SPOT) which uses the arts and creative education as weapons for advancing social, political, and economic, gender and environmental justice. In this essay, he speaks about the politics and economics of music.

Menzi Maseko 3 [supplied]

Black music vs black jazz
The unfinished yet hush-hush battle between those who wish to do away with the term jazz and those who maintain that there is such a rich and multi-racial heritage inherent in it, and has to be preserved rages on. Many music lovers may not see how the battle lines have been drawn and how this sentiment has been fomenting for the longest time but on it is and, contrary to what the critics say, the trumpeter Nicholas Payton may very well be making a necessary revolutionary point when he asserts seriously, “I am Nicholas Payton and I don’t play ‘the j word’. I play BAM. BAM is an acronym for Black American Music.”

But then again, the forceful and innovative musician might be swimming against the tide and perhaps fighting a battle that he and his supporters just can’t win. Some of the critics of this new term, BAM, happen to be excellent writers and opinion makers and many are not entirely against the new name per se, but the sentiment or the intention behind it. As jazz critic and self-confessed jazz evangelist Scott Fugate puts it:

“Anything that can be called truly ‘American’ must represent all the races, cultures, religions, ages and tastes that are part of this great Nation . . . and we are also free to accept or reject it.”
True to form, Americans on the whole tend to reject and ignore jazz. Many have never really listened to it – except in the guise of annoying background music – and even fewer have seen it performed live.” – Scott Fugate, writing in the Jazz Times.

But herein lies the crucial contradiction, reminding me of Gil Scott Heron’s witty song-poem, Is That Jazz?

In which he typically demystifies many of the clichés related to what jazz is, should be or is not. The point is that here is a sound, a style, a cultural institution invented and forged in the fires of the joys and sorrows of a formerly enslaved people (some would say we’re still enslaved) which after being noticed to possess extraordinary and marketable qualities was also taken up by talented individuals, Jews, former Europeans and other ethnicities. These people developed, reformed, deformed and repackaged it for a universal audience, yet it still largely remained the peculiar expression of the original people – black people.

So what if this is not so? All American- blues, rag, swing, bop, funky amalgamation of folk and Afro-Latin influences have also been copied to perfection by other races. The fact remains that it is an expression cultivated and informed by much of the black universal and specifically Negro-American experience. Another writer confirms:

“Take cool jazz, for example. The spate of subdued sounds that blew from the West Coast in the mid-‘50’s – elevating the careers of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers and Dave Brubeck – seemed to the black community one more instance of white musicians profiting from black cultural invention. I guess it was supposed to be some kind of alternative to bebop, or black music … but it was the same old story.”

Miles Davis maintained in his biography, that “black shit was being ripped off all over again”. Gerry Mulligan, active in both East and West Coast scenes of the day, later came to acknowledge the black perspective on the situation.

“I suppose it was later on that I realised that there was some reaction among the musicians themselves, some of whom resented the success of cool jazz in California, and that broke down into the white guys against the hard-blowing black guys in New York.” –Ashley Kahn, Jazztimes.com, September 2001

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I must add that this happens to be another white jazz critic, so one wonders whether the perspective is biased towards the non-racial or multi-ethnic aspects of jazz or not, one will have to read the entire article to make a qualified judgment, suffice to say that this recurring theme of the racial overtones and undertones in the public history of music have not been sufficiently dealt with. This is what has kept so many excellent ideas and cultural institutions from flourishing.

Today one can still find teenage black boys playing Kenny G or David Sanborn and dare to call it jazz. The media, music industry and concert promoters have also dealt jazz another death blow as they are the ones who insist on lumping everything from rhythm and blues to deep house DJ’s who happen to bring along a few instruments into what they call “jazz festivals”.

The Hazelmere concerts in the North Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal and the misnamed North Sea Jazz Festival, which happens to be in the South Sa – are a case in point. Everyone from Kwaito ‘artists’ to atrociously repetitive and out of tune gospel and Afro-pop singers have graced that stage. The ignorant fans come back home elated that they have had a cultural experience at the jazz.

This is pure blasphemy and an outrageous slap in the face for the plethora of musicians, promoters, writers and lovers of jazz who have spent countless hours digging this dexterous sound and are likely to either die poor or become eulogised in many anonymous moments of silence. But silence is what they have been offered while they were present and itching to live in a world that appreciates good art.

Alas, this is a world that rewards sensationalist mendacity and allows progressive movement to beat against high whitewashed walls. But perhaps there is hope. Has BAM come to save the dwindling social status of jazz, wrench it from abysmal obscurity? Well, that is a very complicated matter and might take many years and more than a name change to bring about. But returning to the racial aspects of it, the concert promoters and opinion makers love to mention that music is one thing that manages to bring people together on an equal platform. How true is that exactly?

Can so many generations of collaboration, as unequal and irreversible as they are, be accounted for in a name change? The abandonment of something so strenuously toiled for, can it bear any stranger fruits, or is it as Payton’s critics suggest, a mere marketing gimmick instigated by a selfish young musician who does not appreciate the heritage of his forebears – both black and white?

Perhaps the challenge here is not just an attitude problem or one man’s obsession, perhaps it is not just the words jazz or Black American Music that are at stake. The real elephant in the room is obviously consumerist-capitalism and the lure of easy profit, right?

The scores of white musicians, club-owners and gangsters, who benefitted, profited from the exploitation of black invention may not be the real target or the root of the problem; they just happened to find a ready-made idiom and simply built their own wealth and legacy upon it, right?

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Surely, in America, in the land of the free, this couldn’t have been such a bad idea, especially when many white jazz musicians and others who took the blues and turned it into profitable pop-rock and folk or country music clearly admit that they were never responsible for its invention. After-all, this is part of the great, big, juicy and sliceable American pie and anyone is free to slice it anyhow they want.

This type of attitude should have been able to rescue the dignity of Black American Music from the onslaught of popular consumerist culture and the advent of MTV, but it did not. On the other hand, European classical music still maintains its allure of dignified pomp and its shimmer of ingenuity. Even though there have been many black luminaries even in that genre who rose from the ignominy of slavery to become forgotten supernovae like St Gorge. The fact of their blackness ensures that they remain forgotten or enshrouded in myth, even though they were known to have excelled beyond their white contemporaries in luminous musicianship.

But this is an anti-black world and the sooner we realise this fact, the clearer we will find our way around the problem of racism and thus we would become fully realised and human again. At the moment we appear as mere labourers and an inconvenient yet tolerated human resource.

Our stolen lands are also far from free from the exploitation of white supremacy, yes; it exists even in the arts, even those who would like to claim as our own inventions. In a non-racial, multi-racially diverse world, one is discouraged to claim anything exclusively. Our attempts to become self-sufficient and self-defining are kept at bay by the gods of race denialism–the Mandelas, the Tutus and the Oprah Winfreys. But, just like in the jazz, world there remain those blacks who refuse to be used and misinformed by Eurocentric standards of success.

The black consciousness radical thinkers called Blackwash state it aptly:

“Black poverty lies side by side with white wealth created from the exclusion and impoverishment of blacks. To escape we adopt a white attitude, we become half-white to continue sucking the blood of black people…To succeed is to sellout. We are not against comfort and success but we say look at how these are achieved. Meritocracy and hard work are lies to blind us from the truth of how exploitation and exclusion lies at the heart of success under the anti-black capitalist reality of our time.” –The Blackwash Dream: We fight for it now! 2009

What more can I say? All I know is that I love black music in general and what they call jazz in particular has a special part in my soul, but as a radical black consciousness adherent I will have to support Payton’s revolutionary stance, especially due to the fact that so many opposing voices like his music yet they see fit to deny him a chance to define in as he sees fit.

I am also not surprised to see so much opposition coming from those critics of European ancestry who feel justified in denying a black man his power of self-determination.

In closing let me add just one more interesting example of this tendency of white people to take over the genius of black folks.

Take the story of the one I am listening to right now, this Django Reinhart & Stephane Grappelli album was a birthday gift from a nice and aged white lady I worked with last year. Out of all the millions of jazz albums I could get for my birthday, she had to ironically give me a rather serendipitous history lesson. Yes, she chose some white jazz artists as a gift for me. Here’s a brief history note for you, as depicted in the album sleeve:

“Django Reinhardt was born in Liberchies, Belgium, in 1910, a gypsy brought up on Eastern European music. Grappelli, born in Paris two years earlier, was a fan of American violinist Eddie South.”

Now check this out; From Wikipedia:

“Eddie South was a classical violin prodigy who switched to jazz because of limited opportunities for African-American musicians, and started his career playing in vaudeville and jazz orchestras with Freddie Keppard, Jimmy Wade, Charles Elgar and Erkstine Tate in Chicago. He was influenced by Hungarian music and Roma music starting with a visit to Europe in the 1920s and adapted the music to jazz. On subsequent visits to Europe in the 1930s he performed and recorded with guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli.”

Now, one would note that in those times America was not at all a happy place to be black. And many artists and writers of colour were forced to go ply their trades in Europe. But keeping this and the brief biography of Reinhardt in mind, behold what the latest collection of Eddie South music is called: Black Gypsy.

It is exactly as the Blackwash comrades stated – in order to succeed; blacks have to either adopt a white attitude, a white persona or completely sell out to whiteness. Eddie just couldn’t remain a good old black southern negro; he had to brand himself or was branded a gypsy. Many writers have called moves like this “selling your soul to the devil”.

In the survival game that is life, especially in the creative artist’s fickle world, it is all about survival. Many a times artistic integrity has cost people their livelihood. But surely there is an elephant in the room here, and it’s the proverbial white elephant indeed.

The obviously gifted Reinhardt is said to be a gypsy but he did not find it difficult to become a legend and a wealthy musician at that. He and his partner in musical plagiarism are still remembered and selling till this very day, but even I did not know much about Eddie South. I have had to see South through northern eyes, a sort of cruel case of northern-exposure – finding ourselves and even our ancestry through white eyes. According to the album sleeves it is said:

“Django’s influence had endured all the way through to Jimmy Hendrix, who is said to have named his group Band of Gypsies in Django’s honour, while an annual festival takes place in his honour in Liberchies, the village of his birth.” – sleeve notes by Michael Heatley

Very well then, we are grateful for the warmed up music, but whatever happened to Eddie South? Classical music couldn’t help him, but did jazz ever help him to survive?